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Thread: Malaysian History: Sultans' Daulat is a myth, Bakri Musa

   
   
       
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    Malaysian History: Sultans' Daulat is a myth, Bakri Musa

    The Sultans’ ‘daulat’ is a myth (Part 1) — M. Bakri Musa



    Part 2 below.


    August 28, 2012
    AUG 28 — As a youngster in 1960 I had secured for myself a commanding view high atop a coconut tree to watch the funeral procession of the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Rahman. My smug demonstration of my perched position drew the attention of the village elders below. They were none too pleased and immediately ordered me down. “Sultans have daulat,” they admonished, “you cannot be above them.” Apparently even dead Sultans maintained their daulat. I did not dare challenge my elders as to what would happen once the king was buried; then we all would be above him.


    To put things in perspective, this attribution of special or divine powers to Rulers is not unique to Malay culture. The ancient Chinese emperors too had their Tianming, Mandate from Heaven. That however, was not enough to protect them.


    Even though it has deep roots in Malay society, this daulat thing is a myth. The Japanese, despite their own “Sun Goddess” tradition, had no difficulty disabusing the Malay Rajas and their subjects of this myth. The surprise was not how quickly the Sultans lost their power and prestige, or how quickly they adapted to their new plebian status during the Japanese Occupation, rather how quickly the Malay masses accepted this new reality of their Rajas being ordinary mortals sans daulat.


    Only days before the Japanese landed, any Malay peasant who perchance made eye contact with his Sultan, may Allah have mercy on him for the Sultan certainly would not. When the Japanese took over, those Rajas had to scramble with the other villagers for what few fish there were in the river and what scarce mushrooms they could scrape in the jungle. Nobody was bothered with or took heed of the daulat thing. So much for it being deeply entrenched in our culture!


    To pursue my point, had the Malayan Union succeeded, our Sultans today would have been all tanjak (ceremonial weapon) and desta (headgear); they would have as much status and power as the Sultan of Sulu. Across the Straits of Malacca, hitherto Malay Sultans are now reduced to ordinary citizens. They and their society are none the worse for that.


    Today’s slightly better-educated Malay Sultans and crown princes (there are no crown princesses, let it be noted) would like us to believe in yet another myth, this time based not on our culture but constitution. They believe that it provides them with that extra “something” beyond their being mere constitutional head.


    This new myth, like all good fiction, has just a tinge of reality to it. The Reid Commission had envisaged the Conference of Rulers to be the third House of Parliament, after the elected House of Representatives and the appointed Senate. It would be a greatly reduced House of Lords as it were, to provide much-needed “final thought” to new legislations.


    That assumption had considerable merit, at least in theory. As membership is hereditary, those Rulers would be spared from having to pander to the masses as those elected members of Parliament, or please their political patrons as with the senators. Additionally, this third House would be non-partisan.


    An expression of this “Third House of Parliament” function is that all senior governmental including ministerial appointments have to be ratified by the Conference of Rulers. However, unlike the transparent deliberations of the “advice and consent” function of the United States Senate where senior appointees are subjected to open confirmation hearings, the proceedings of the Conference are secret. We know only those who have been accepted, not those rejected or why.


    Zaid Ibrahim’s “Ampun Tuanku. A Brief Guide to Constitutional Government” addresses what should be in his view the proper role of Sultans in the Malaysian brand of constitutional monarchy, specifically whether they have this “something extra” beyond what is explicitly stated in the constitution. As a lawyer, Zaid is uniquely qualified to write on the matter. He is no ordinary lawyer, having once headed the country’s largest legal firm and served as the nation’s de facto law minister.


    The title notwithstanding, this highly readable book is more persuasive than descriptive; more political science treatise, less legal brief. The expository flow is smooth, logical and highly convincing. It is refreshingly free of legal jargon or references to court cases that typically pollute commentaries by lawyers. To Zaid, the constitution does indeed grant Malay Sultans that something extra, but not in their capacity as the titular head of the government, rather as their being head of Islam and defender of the faith.


    Zaid explores the many wonderful opportunities possible as a consequence of this second function without having to invoke additional “special powers”. I will pursue his novel ideas and wonderful suggestions later. At 40 pages, his chapter on this issue (“The Rulers and Islamisation”) is the longest, and deserves careful reading especially by the royal class. He puts forth many innovative ideas that if pursued would benefit not only Malays but also all Malaysians.


    With active and enlightened engagement by the Rulers and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Islam would emancipate Malays just as it did the ancient Bedouins, and in the process enhance race relations. That would be a pleasant if somewhat radical departure from the current environment where Islam not only deeply polarises Malays but also sows much interfaith and interracial distrust.


    In all other aspects the Sultans and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong are bound by what is explicitly stated in the constitution. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, Zaid stresses, and our Sultans and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong must abide by the wishes of the rakyat as expressed through their elected representatives in the executive branch. If citizens have made their wishes clear through an election that they would prefer a certain party and individuals to lead them or certain legislations enacted, the Sultan must abide by that decision regardless of where his personal sympathy lies.


    In short, there are no penumbras of rights and privileges emanating from those hallowed clauses of our constitution. The matter is clear: Sultans are bound by the law. Sultans cannot claim a penumbra of power based on daulat or divine mandate, as the Sultan as well as the Raja Muda of Perak tried to argue recently. Daulat is fiction.


    This principle is central and must be defended against any incursion or erosion. Zaid is rightly distressed, for example, when the Sultan of Terengganu (who was also the Yang di-Pertuan Agong at the time) prevailed in making his choice of Ahmad Said as mentri besar when the citizens had explicitly elected the state Umno leader Idris Jusoh. This erosion was possible only because of the weak leadership of then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. A similar incursion occurred in Perak, this time on a much more blatant and ugly level.


    The situation in Perak is particularly instructive. Before becoming Sultan, Raja Azlan Shah once served as the country’s Chief Justice. As Zaid reminds us in his book, in that capacity Raja Azlan clearly articulated that the powers of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong are well circumscribed by the constitution. As Sultan, however, he claimed his “special powers”. That was his justification for imposing his solution on the state’s political crisis during the post-2008 election crisis to favour the Barisan Nasional coalition.


    Such palace incursions and our acquiescence undermine the very principle of our democracy. On a more practical level, if that proves to be the new norm, our chief ministers and prime ministers would then be beholden to their Sultans and Yang di-Pertuan Agong, not the rakyat. Our ministers (mentris) would then revert to their role in feudal Malay society, as hired hands of the palace and not the people’s chief executive.


    In a democracy, daulat (sovereignty) resides with the people, not the rajas. Our constitution is clear on that point, as Zaid repeatedly reminds us. We must constantly defend this principle lest it be eroded.


    * This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

    .............................

    Sultans’ Daulat Is A Myth – Part Two




    Book Review: Zaid Ibrahim’s Ampun Tuanku

    M. Bakri Musa



    Second of Three Parts: The Origin of the Daulat Myth

    [In the first part I discussed the sultans’ rationale for seeking extra constitutional powers based on their claim of daulat. This claim of divine dispensation is a myth. In this section I discussed the current political dynamics that led to the sultans wanting to reassert their special status.]


    Zaid begins his book by briefly tracing the history of Malay sultans. Unlike the Japanese Imperial family that stretches as far back as 600 BC, or the British to the 11th Century or even earlier, Malay sultans are of recent vintage. The Raja of Perlis was established only in 1834, while that of Johor only slightly older (1819).


    In modeling the Malaysian constitutional monarchy along the British one, the Reid Commission assumed that Malay sultans were like English kings. That was the first major blunder. To Zaid, it also underscores the pitfall of trying to adopt wholesale foreign concepts or models, not just in law but also much of everything else.


    Those English monarchs have had centuries of working with a democratically elected government. Earlier, a few of them have had to pay dearly for their errors.

    Consequently today their system works smoothly. Not so with Malay sultans. Up until British rule, Malay sultans were literally Gods; those sultans could actually take your life. Displease the sultan or prevent him from grabbing whatever you own including your daughter or priced kerbau (water buffalo), and you risked being beheaded, banished, or enslaved (kerah). Those sultans were not above the law as there were no laws then; they were the laws.


    Malays like me have a lot to be thankful to those colonials for ending those odious royal traits of our culture. No, that is not an expression of my being mentally colonized, rather one of deep gratitude.


    Malaysia has a disproportionate number of monarchs, 9 out of the nearly 40 worldwide, as Zaid and others have noted. The error in that frequently cited observation is the assumption that our sultans are comparable to those other kings and queens; they are not. There is little in common between Malay sultans and the British Queen or Japanese Emperor. Instead, Malay sultans have more in common with the tribal warlords of Africa and Papua New Guinea, from their insular worldview to their fanciful costumes. The Papuan tribal chiefs have their elaborate colorful headgear, as well as their prominent penile sheaths which they proudly display; ours have their equally ostentatious desta and tanjak.


    Like those tribal chieftains, our sultans’ too are afflicted with their feudal habits. Modernity has not erased our sultan’s medieval mentality. When Malaysia became independent, those odious habits began creeping back. Those sultans are not to be blamed entirely, however.


    “The Rulers’ unwillingness to remain within their constitutional roles has been further aggravated,” Zaid writes, “by a lack of conviction and courage by the institutions that are supposed to protect and preserve [our] … constitution.” Stated differently, our sultans have many enablers. We allow them to regress. We tolerate them when they flout the rules.


    Members of the Malay royal family are perfectly capable of behaving themselves and keeping within the rules if they were to be told in no uncertain terms that their tantrums would not be tolerated. Consider their behaviors during colonial and Japanese times. It was the sultans who sembah (genuflected to) the colonial and Japanese officers. Today when these Malay princes and princesses are down in Singapore for example, they obey even the basic traffic rules. Those rajas would not dare pull their silly stunts down there; they would be immediately punished. Likewise, if one of our sultans were to skip on his Vegas casino gambling debts, our ambassador would have to quickly bail him out of the county jail.


    Just as a child whose earlier tantrums had not been corrected would grow up to be an intolerable brat, likewise when our sultans strayed earlier on and there was no one to restrain them, that only encouraged them to go beyond. A few decades later their excesses would trigger the constitutional crises of the 1980s and 1990s that led to the amendments ending respectively the rulers’ power to veto legislations and stripping them of legal immunity in their personal conduct.


    Both were possible because of the strong executive leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir. Today with a government with a less-than-robust mandate and a leader with a banana stem spine, the sultans are emboldened to re-exert themselves; hence the insistence of their daulat or special status.


    With that, their old brute feudal traits began to re-surface. Consider the ugly spectacle a few years back in Singapore involving the Kelantan Royal family. They tried to essentially kidnap the estranged Indonesian wife of one of the princes. Had that incident happened in Malaysia, rest assured that a “helpful” minister or religious leader would have “counseled” the poor young girl to return to her obnoxious husband.


    In Singapore where everyone is equal under the law, that prince would not dare claim his special status. More importantly, no one would grant him such. Consequently that poor Indonesian bride of the prince was able to escape from her palace prison.


    On a much more grotesque scale, there was the case involving a Brunei prince and his British lawyers. As the dispute fell under American jurisdiction, we get to see in open court the peccadilloes of that prince. Not pretty, in fact hideous. You can assume that his counterparts in Malaysia are no different, only that their ugly acts are willfully concealed.


    As a consequence of the constitutional amendment of the 1990s, the late Yang di Pertuan Negri Sembilan was successfully sued for his unpaid debts. In the past, his creditors would not have even dared challenge him. To the royal class, those peasants should be grateful that their “tributes” were accepted.


    While the royal tribunal is an advancement, its learning or even deterrent value was minimal or non-existent as the proceedings are secret. Had they been open, the lavish lifestyles and obscene unpaid bills of our sultans would be exposed. They could not then readily claim their daulat under such ugly circumstances.


    Zaid advocates that those royal tribunal proceedings be open to the public, as with any court hearing; I agree. Such exposures would also help humanize our sultans, showing to the public that they are susceptible to the usual human foibles and weaknesses. Deadbeats, even royal ones, do not have daulat!


    Next: Last of Three Parts: Opportunities for Sultans as Head of Islam
    py

  2. #2
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    I see a warning here. In life, it is important to have a sense of history to guide our behaviour. Failure to do so could be fatal.

    The Sultans’ daulat is a myth (Part 3) — M. Bakri Musa




    September 10, 2012
    SEPT 10 — [In the first part of this essay I explored the myth to the sultans’ claim of their special powers based on daulat (divine dispensation); in the second, I examined the dynamics that led them to claim that status today. In this third and last essay, I reviewed Zaid’s novel views of how the sultans could indeed claim their “special powers” by virtue of the fact of their being head of Islam.]


    The constitution explicitly states the secular role of sultans. There are no penumbras or derived powers. In practice, however, as Zaid noted with everything pertaining to the law, if you have money you could always hire a smarter lawyer who would argue otherwise. Indeed that is what the sultans are doing as they now can afford expensive legal counsel; hence their claim of “something extra” based on daulat.


    Legal theories do not arise out of nowhere. It is the current weak political leadership of Najib Razak (and Abdullah Badawi before him) that emboldens the sultans to reassert themselves and challenge established principles and practices.


    That notwithstanding, there is one area in the constitution that is indisputable and unchallengeable: The sultan as head of Islam. This is where the sultan could rightly claim his special status as his authority there is absolute. Creatively managed, it could prove to be a splendid opportunity for them to serve not only Malays but also non-Muslim Malaysians.


    “Where Islam is concerned,” Zaid writes, “the Malay Rulers have a golden opportunity to make their mark.” That they do not is the greatest missed opportunity, for them as well as for Malaysians and Malaysia.


    This special role in Islam for the sultan has a strong foundation. The concept of a supreme head of the ummah goes back to the days of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs and indeed Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., himself. Not surprisingly, modern Muslim leaders including our sultans have conveniently latched on to that symbolism.


    Historically and for very practical reasons, the British were only too happy to relegate matters of Islam to the sultans. That was also politically shrewd as it placated both the natives and their sultans.


    Conveniently, Islam was also then peripheral if not irrelevant to the politics and economics of the country. So that was an easy concession on the part of the colonials.


    Further, with Malays consumed with their sultans and religion, that eased the British to exploit the economic riches of the land with the help of immigrants who were unencumbered with either.


    Today the situation is very different. Malays are still obsessed with their religion and to some extent (although decidedly less so) their sultans. Islam today however, is central to everything that is Malaysian, especially politics and economics. The increasingly shrill contestation of Islam between Umno and PAS attests to this. Islamic financial institutions are now major players, and zakat collections are in the billions.


    At one level, Malays’ continuing obsession with religion and the afterlife distracts us from making our rightful contribution to the country, especially in matters economic. At another, this presents lucrative opportunities for the sultans to intrude into Islamic financial and economic spheres all in the guise of their being head and defender of the faith.


    With his legal background, Zaid rightly focuses on the increasingly assertive role of syariah in the administration of justice. In the past, syariah was concerned primarily with family law, as with divorce and inheritance cases. Now it encroaches into areas hitherto the purview of secular (both civil as well as criminal) courts. Syariah is now on par with and in many instances superior to secular courts, in effect above the constitution. Fatwas (decrees issued by religious functionaries) now have the power of law, thus usurping the legislature.


    If those were not problematic enough, with syariah usurping the criminal courts Malaysians face the reality that the punishment they get would depend not on the crime they have committed rather their faith.


    A Muslim caught committing adultery could face “stoning to death” under syariah while non-Muslims would not even be prosecuted, or if prosecuted would be slapped with a small fine for indecent exposure perhaps and suffer the wrath of their spouses.


    Even in matters pertaining to family law, they can get messier especially where one party to the dispute is a non-Muslim. The victims are not just the living. Recent cases of “corpse snatching” are but one ugly manifestation.
    This judicial abdication by the secular courts, in Zaid’s view, occurred because their judges are mostly Malays who want to appear “pious and upright Muslims… want[ing] to fit into the ‘correct’ image of a good Muslim.”
    Islam emancipated the ancient Bedouins and made them give up their odious practices such as female infanticide and “an eye for eye” sense of justice. Perversely today, the more Malays and Malaysia become “Islamized,” the more backward, corrupt, polarised and dysfunctional Malays and Malaysia become. The irony!


    “Islam — the great purifier and liberating force in the world — had been reduced to an ordinary cult in Malaysia,” writes Zaid. Not any ordinary cult but a rogue one, with corrupt, toxic leaders.


    As undisputed leaders of Islam, sultans have a major role to correct these obvious pathologies. That they have abdicated this crucial role is a major factor to Malays becoming deeply polarized and increasingly marginalized economically. That is a tragedy not only for Malays but also for all Malaysians. Ultimately this will also negatively impact the sultans.


    The sultans have shirked their responsibilities because one, they are ill equipped to play this important role as head of the faith. They have severely limited knowledge of Islam and worse, they lack the curiosity to learn. They are Islamically-challenged in all spheres.


    Thus they become captive to the ulamas (the state sponsored ones), an arrangement reminiscent to what the Saudi royals have with their religious establishment.


    The personal behaviours of these sultans also preclude them from playing exemplary roles in Islam. They frequent casinos, night clubs and golf courses, not mosques and suraus.


    The notable exception is the current Sultan of Kelantan. His visible piety softened what otherwise would have been a very negative public perception of filial betrayal and palace coup after he took power from his incapacitated father. His modest and pious lifestyle also embarrassed the other royals.


    There is a picture going viral on the Internet of him removing his shoes before entering a mosque during Ramadan. This was juxtaposed to that of the Johor crown prince being fitted with his polo riding boots by one of his subjects. The contrast could not have been more revealing; two very different portraits of the head of Islam.
    At another level, Malay sultans do not pay any income or other taxes. It can be argued that this is the norm for monarchies elsewhere, those being the privileges of being head of state. In Islam however, nobody is exempted from its precepts.


    One of the five cardinal obligations of a Muslim is to give zakat (tithe) in the amount of 2.5 percent of the value of your assets. This applies to leaders and followers, imams and ordinary believers, and sultans as well as subjects.


    As head and defender of the faith a sultan must be an exemplary Muslim. I challenge our sultans to declare how much zakat they have contributed. On the contrary, they are the consumers and beneficiaries of zakat.


    In the final analysis, the fate of Malaysian sultans lies less with what is written in the constitution or their accepted role as head of Islam, rather how they perform both in their official roles as well as personal capacities.


    As for the former, we have the Sultans’ of Perak and Trengganu performances following the last elections to go by; for the latter, the thuggish behaviours of the Johor princes and the debt-skipping late Yang Di Pertuan of Negri Sembilan. With such examples we cannot be optimistic on the future of the institution of sultans.


    The sultans may be the constitutional heads of state but to most non-Malays they are irrelevant; they are after all Malay rajas. Those non-Malays who found the sultans useful do so because they provide reliable conduits to lucrative government contracts.


    The relationship is less symbiotic, more parasitical. I leave it to my readers to determine which party is the parasite. Those are the non-Malays who flaunt their fancy royal titles and are genuinely proud of their status as Malay hulubalangs (knights).


    Few Malays, especially the young, urban and educated, have favourable views of their sultans. Those in the kampong still display at least outwardly their loyalty and fealty, but that is more an expression of cultural courtesy rather than respect.


    I visited my kampong in Negri Sembilan near the royal town of Sri Menanti during the reign of its former ruler and was surprised by the outward displays of loyalty by the villagers despite and especially considering the blatant “un-Islamic” and “un-Malay” behaviours of the princes. One would conclude that this tolerance of and acceptance by those villagers effectively turned them into enablers for the royals’ excesses.


    Then that Yang Di Pertuan died and the Undangs bypassed his family in their choice of his successor. The relief and joy of the villagers was palpable. Only then could one subtly discern the loathing they had for the members of the previous royal family.


    On a grander scale, one would be hard put to deny the “love” the Iranians had for their late Shah, judging from their behaviours during the 2,500-year Persepolis “anniversary” celebration in 1971. Who could have predicted that barely eight years later the Shah would be hounded out of his country!


    The Shah of Iran, Egypt’s Farouk, and the King of Afghanistan all had their positions secured in their respective constitutions. During their reign, they all enjoyed the effusive adulations and loyalty of their subjects. Today those monarchs are all gone; recalling their names would only evoke loathing among their former subjects.


    Malay sultans would do well to ponder that. As they reflect, they would also do well to read Zaid Ibrahim’s Ampun Tuanku. Better yet, invite him to address their next Conference of Rulers. That would be the best way for them to avoid the fate they endured during the Japanese Occupation, or worse.


    * This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
    py

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